Sat March 2, 2013
Marc on the Blues

Nine O'clock Blues: Odetta, The Queen Of American Folk Music

A major part of the American folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s, Odetta was a singer/songwriter, guitarist, actress, and a leading human and civil rights activist.

Her sound included and often combined American folk music, blues, jazz, and spirituals.

If you were called “the queen of American folk music” by Martin Luther King Jr., if Rosa Parks called herself your number one fan, and if you were listed as a major influence by Bob Dylan, Harry Belafonte, Maya Angelou, Carly Simon, Joan Baez, Mavis Staples, Janis Joplin and many others, then you were someone very special.

That was more than the case with the late Odetta.

Born Odetta Holmes in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1930, she was raised in Los Angeles by a mother who hoped Odetta would follow in the footsteps of Marian Anderson. So Odetta started operatic training at the age of 13. She studied music at Los Angeles City College, paying her way as a domestic worker.   

Being a large black woman, Odetta doubted she would ever be accepted as an opera singer so her first public performances were in 1944 in musical theater. In 1949 she joined the national touring company of the musical Finian's Rainbow. It was at that time that Odetta, as she put it, "fell in with an enthusiastic group of young balladeers in San Francisco."

That was the impetus for her entry into Folk music. After 1950 it became her primary focus.

Odetta often played at what became the prime folk clubs of the era, partially due to her. Notable clubs such as the Blue Angel nightclub in New York City, the hungry i in San Francisco, and the Tin Angel also in San Francisco. It was in 1954 at the Tin Angel that she and Larry Mohr recorded Odetta and Larry which was her inaugural recording experience.  Soon after that she embarked on a solo career, recording several of the Folk era’s top albums including Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues in 1956, At the Gate of Horn in 1957 and Odetta Sings Folk Songs in 1963.

Over the years until her passing in 2008 Odetta recorded many more albums and appeared at many of the era’s most important events including singing “O Freedom” at the 1963 civil rights march on Washington.

After Odetta’s passing due to heart disease, her memorial service took place in February 2009 in New York City. Among those who took part were Maya Angelou, Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Geoffrey Holder, Steve Earle, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Peter Yarrow, Tom Chapin, Josh White, Jr., Emory Joseph, Rattlesnake Annie, the Brooklyn Technical High School Chamber Chorus, and there were recorded tributes from Tavis Smiley and Joan Baez.

Maya Angelou said "If only one could be sure that every 50 years a voice and a soul like Odetta's would come along, the centuries would pass so quickly and painlessly we would hardly recognize time."

We will pass some time ‘quickly and painlessly’ with music from Odetta this Saturday night on The Nine O’clock Blues.


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